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Gov. Tom Wolf On Coronavirus And Unemployment In Pennsylvania

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In terms of both job losses and confirmed coronavirus cases, Pennsylvania is one of the hardest hit states in the country - fifth highest in number of cases, and unemployment in the state is nearly 20%, meaning 1 in 5 workers is not working. The GOP-controlled state legislature is eager to open Pennsylvania back up and sent a bill to the governor's desk this week that would start the process. So let's bring in the governor, Democrat Tom Wolf. Governor, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TOM WOLF: Thank you. It's good to be here.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. So I mentioned the state legislature, which sent you this bill on Wednesday that would force you to open more nonessential businesses. It's not just them. There's also a Facebook group titled Reopen Pennsylvania that I gather has attracted more than 25,000 followers in just a few days. What do you say to these people?

WOLF: Yeah. I mean, I think everybody is anxious to get back and going. And I think what we all have to recognize is that you can't snap your fingers and say, OK, we're going to be reopened. We're finding in the central businesses in parts of Pennsylvania that have been hardest hit by this that employers are having a hard time having their workers get to work, that they're concerned about their health and safety. And so we've had some big, essential companies that actually had to close their doors because they couldn't get workers to come to work.

So I don't think there's anybody who says, gee, I really like the way things are going here. We all want to get back to work. We all want to reopen as quickly as possible. The problem is we also all want to stay safe, as safe as we can. So we're trying to steer a course between these two very important challenges that we face and try to reconcile them. And we've had some success. We are flattening the curve.

KELLY: Stay there for a minute, if you would. You said you're flattening the curve. What is your sense of where your state is on the curve? Are you past the peak in terms of number of cases? Not there yet? Do you know?

WOLF: It depends on which model you use. According to the University of Washington model, we hit our peak yesterday in terms of cases. Deaths would be sometime this weekend. And, of course, Pennsylvania is a very diverse state. The epicenter of the disease for us has been the southeastern part of the state around the city of Philadelphia and the collar counties and in the northeastern part of the state. You know, within the hottest areas, we have seen some real progress. Some days we actually have a reduction in the rate of increase. But we're not at a point where I think we're ready to declare victory.

KELLY: The bill that the state legislature sent you that would open more businesses, are you planning to veto?

WOLF: Yes, I am. And again, the reason is - I absolutely support the idea of getting back to work. What we've got to do is make sure that we're doing this responsibly.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, how much pressure do you feel, though, when you look at that? One of every five workers in your state has filed for unemployment.

WOLF: Yeah. Now partially that's because I think we moved pretty quickly to cut off the growth of this virus. And I think we've had some success. So I think what you're seeing in the unemployment numbers reflect that. Up until five years ago, I was running a business, and I understand the pressures. We have to get back to work as quickly as possible. And that's what I want to do.

KELLY: I know that you've already closed schools through the end of this school year. You've got a stay-at-home - a statewide stay-at-home order that's in place until the end of the month. Is that correct?

WOLF: Right.

KELLY: Right. The White House, as you know, has laid out recommendations for a three-phase approach for states to reopen their economies. Generally speaking, does that approach make sense to you?

WOLF: Yeah. It's a general approach and, I think, lays out the broad categories that make absolutely perfect sense. But as you know, that plan basically says states have to do it, and the governors are primarily responsible for doing that. And I think that makes perfect sense.

KELLY: And what about testing? I'm asking because we had Governor Inslee of Washington state on the show last night. He talked about what he needs to think about reopening his state and said they're going to need five to 10 times more testing capability than they currently have. Where is Pennsylvania on that?

WOLF: Yeah, same thing. We actually - I think we're in fairly good shape with platforms for testing. What we need is the kits, the reagents, the things that actually make those platforms work.

KELLY: You mean you've got tents and testing sites and teams ready to go, but you need the actual tests.

WOLF: Yes.

KELLY: How short are you?

WOLF: It depends on what you want to do. I think if you talk about surveillance testing, where you're basically sort of saying anybody who wants a diagnostic test can get one, we're a long way from that. If you talk about people who have medical symptoms who need to be tested, we're pretty close, and I think we can get there. But I think we need to be more on the surveillance side of testing than just where we are.

The other test, of course, is the antibody tests that are out. That is going to be a key part of making people feel confident that they can go back to work. If they have the antibodies and they can be somewhat confident that they're not going to get really sick when they go back to work regardless of what their fellow employees do or the customers do or don't do, I think that's going to be important.

So we seem to be making progress. My assumption is that vaccines, cures are a longer way down the road. We need to be thinking before that, and testing is going to be key in this sort of second phase.

KELLY: That is Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Governor, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

WOLF: Thanks, Mary Louise. Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.